Monday, July 11, 2016

Happiness vs. Joy: Finding Gratitude During Stressful Times

July 7, 2016

Could striving for happiness actually be making us less happy in the long run?

We spend a lot of our time working toward things that we think will make us happy: pursuing a better-paying job, searching for an ideal spouse, saving up for that dream trip to Europe or a number of other experiences and material objects.

However, once we achieve those things, the feeling of happiness we experience is often short-lived, and not as satisfying as we expected.

Even winning the lottery, something nearly everyone has fantasized about at one point or another, will not make you as happy as you might think. A classic 1978 experiment by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts asked people of two very different groups, recent lottery winners and recent victims of catastrophic accidents, to rate the level of pleasure they received from simple, yet enjoyable moments in life such as receiving a compliment or laughing at a joke. Surprisingly, both sets of people reported similar levels of happiness, with the paraplegic accident victims actually reporting slightly higher levels of happiness.

Sure, the lottery winners probably experienced very high levels of happiness when they first heard their winning numbers announced, but happiness, like all human emotions, is temporary and eventually fades away.

Some psychologists have attributed this phenomenon to something called hedonistic adaptation, which suggests that everyone has their own individual baseline level of happiness. When something good or exciting happens, our happiness level increases, but only for a short time before reverting back to our baseline. It’s why we have a tendency to get tired of things that once made us happy, such as a new house or car, and desire to reach that same level of happiness again, by moving to an even bigger house or buying an even newer car.

This pursuit of happiness is like being stuck in a hamster wheel. We’re constantly moving toward the next thing that will make us happy and never actually reaching a place where we can stop moving and say “I’ve made it! I’m happy!”

That’s exactly why we should stop striving for happiness and strive for joy instead.


What’s the difference between happiness and joy?

Though they seem similar, there are some profound differences between these concepts. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two feelings is where they come from. Happiness is external. It is brought on by outside experiences, worldly pleasures, material objects, etc. Joy, on the other hand, is internal. It’s a state of mind. Joy has elements of many pleasant feelings, including happiness, but also contentment, hope and peace. Joy is happiness on a much deeper and more meaningful level. While happiness brings a smile to the face, joy brings warmth to the heart.

Imagine coming into a large sum of money by chance, such as winning the lottery. How would you feel? Probably pretty happy! Now imagine that you just earned that same amount of money after working hard to start your own business doing what you love. You would feel joy. The end result is the same (the money), but it’s the way you get there that determines the final emotion you experience.

As mentioned earlier, happiness is a temporary emotion, whereas joy tends to last much longer and have a deeper impact. You are likely to remember moments of joy more vividly than moments of happiness. A delicious meal at a restaurant will make you happy, but having the exact same meal prepared for you at home by someone very special to you will bring you joy, and you would likely remember the moment for much longer.

Joy does not always come from our own experiences, but the positive experiences of others as well. Seeing your child smile and laugh for the first time, or hearing a loved one’s exciting news would likely bring you a great sense of joy. That’s one of the best things about joy: it can be shared, and often becomes more powerful when shared with another.


How do we find joy during difficult times?

Life doesn’t always seem sunny and bright. There will inevitably be stormy days, and happiness is not always present amidst these life “storms” but joy can be.

So what’s the key to finding joy in less than ideal circumstances? Practicing gratitude.

Sometimes being joyful means committing to having a positive outlook on life and an appreciation for the moment, despite the circumstances. Making a conscious effort to focus on what you have to be grateful for in life instead of what’s going wrong can actually increase that baseline level of happiness mentioned earlier and bring feelings of lasting joy.

Next time you’re stressed or unhappy with something in your life, stop and take a moment to think of three things you’re grateful for. Too often, we take things like health, a home, employment, family or friends for granted and neglect to appreciate them when they matter most. In order to find joy in the midst of a life storm, it’s important not to lose sight of the many great things we have going for us.

Even take a moment to be grateful for the challenges you are facing because every challenge is a lesson that will allow you to grow. It can be difficult, but try to see challenges as opportunities to learn and build a better life.

Practicing gratitude can help you live a more joyful life even when you aren’t going through difficult times. It’s easy to get jealous of what our peers have, especially in today’s social media age when we are constantly scrolling through streams of other people’s accomplishments. Remember that what you see on Instagram or Facebook is just the highlight reel of other people’s lives. You don’t know what challenges your neighbor who’s posting beautiful photos from her Caribbean cruise could be facing behind the scenes. There will always be those who have more than us, but it’s important to remember that there will also always be those who have less.


How can we practice gratitude in our daily lives?

Start by practicing interior gratitude, which is the act of giving thanks internally. Make mental notes about small things you’re grateful for throughout the day and try to find things to be grateful for even in annoying or less than ideal circumstances. For example, you may think “I really don’t want to go to the DMV to renew my car registration, but I’m grateful to have a car and to be healthy enough to drive it.”

Some people find that keeping a gratitude journal helps them stay positive and increases feelings of joy over time. Not only does this give you a chance to routinely acknowledge things you are grateful for, but you will have a collection of these things to look back on when you are feeling stressed or unhappy.

Next, move on to exterior gratitude, or the act of giving thanks publicly. Take time to let your loved ones, friends and colleagues know that you are thankful for them and the impact they have on your life. Even go out of your way to thank someone you may see regularly but not normally speak to, such as your mail carrier, your doorman or the custodian that cleans your office building. Not only is expressing your gratitude for others good for your own well-being, you may bring unexpected joy to someone else’s life too!


Final thoughts:


Just because happiness is a temporary emotion doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still pursue it. Doing the things that make us happy can help us live more joyful and fulfilling lives. We should always be celebrating the moments in life that make us happy, even the small ones that may not be as profound as our big moments of joy. What’s important is not letting happiness become our ultimate goal, because we will only get stuck in the hamster wheel. Instead, we should strive to practice gratitude as often as we can, so that our outlook on life is one of positivity and joy.

Breaking the Anxiety Habit


June 30, 2016

It’s no secret that people are more anxious now than ever before. Reported levels of anxiety have been steadily on the rise since the end of World War II, and today, anxiety disorders make up the most prevalent mental health disorders worldwide, affecting about 40 million adults age 18 and above in the United States and 1 in 8 children.

That’s 18% of the population that suffers from one or more of the many disorders that fall under the umbrella of anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.

Women are twice as likely as men to develop an anxiety disorder, and anxiety disorders often set it much earlier for women than men.

The good news is that anxiety is highly treatable, however, only about one-third of those who suffer from it seek and receive treatment. While the severity of anxiety levels can vary quite a bit from person to person, and more debilitating cases require medication and professional treatment, there are a number of ways we can manage general symptoms of anxiety on our own.

We can manage our anxiety, but it’s a process, and an important part of that process is understanding why we get anxious and where our anxiety is coming from.

So why do we get anxious anyway?

As humans, our brains are wired to look for what we are missing in our environment. It’s a basic survival instinct. Think of the earliest humans, the hunter-gatherers who constantly had to be aware of what the next thing they needed for survival was, whether that was food, water or shelter.

The physical symptoms of anxiety we experience stem from this same survival instinct. When we encounter a threat, real or perceived, a part of our brain called the amygdala starts releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), triggering the familiar fight-or-flight response: increased heart rate, quickness of breath and tense muscles. In women, this response is triggered more readily and stays active longer than in men, which is part of the reason women are more prone to anxiety problems.

When we really are faced with danger, this response is a good thing; it helps us get out of harm’s way or defend ourselves. Even in non-life-threatening situations, these hormones can actually help us perform better and improve our lives. A big job interview or presentation may have our stomach in knots, but the instinct to protect ourselves motivates us to prepare, and the adrenaline rush can give us the energy we need to perform under stressful circumstances.

But too much of these hormones can have negative effects on our bodies, such as higher blood pressure, sleep problems, appetite problems, difficulty concentrating, weight gain and even stroke.

Even though this fight-or-flight instinct is critical for survival, sometimes our brains can get stuck in this place of searching for what is missing and worrying even when we aren’t in immediate danger. This way of thinking becomes a habit we don’t even realize we are developing until we are already so comfortable with it that it can almost seem scary and unfamiliar not to be in a place of constantly thinking about what needs to happen, what could happen or what’s next.

We’ve essentially tricked our bodies into thinking we are in danger when we aren’t, and that’s when anxiety becomes a bigger problem.

How can we manage anxiety?

The key to managing anxiety involves changing our thinking patterns by challenging negative thoughts and training our brains to tone down that automatic fight-or-flight response and evaluate if the feelings of danger we are experiencing are serious or not.

It sounds difficult, and it can be, but it is possible with practice. Just as our brains have trained our bodies to be hungry or sleepy at certain times of the day, we can train ourselves to be less anxious.

Start by challenging negative thoughts and worries. Asking yourself questions can help put thoughts and situations into perspective and calm the mind. Next time you’re worried about something, ask yourself:

  • “What is my evidence for thinking that this could actually happen?”
  • “What can I do to find out if my thoughts are true?”
  • “Is there another way of looking at this situation?”
  • “Is there anything positive about this situation?”
  • “Will this matter a year from now?”
  • “Is this a productive thought?”
  • “Is thinking this way helping me achieve my goals?”

When we stop to question our thoughts, it not only gives us a sense of control over our thinking when we are feeling anxious, it also gives us the opportunity to step back and really reflect on the way we are thinking to identify where in our thought processes we can make changes to prevent these anxious thoughts from getting out of hand in the future.

Because a large part of anxiety involves trying to control things we can’t, and getting lost in infinite “what ifs?” another technique that can help is mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness can help us be present in the here and now and remind us that all we really can control is how we are handling this exact moment in time.

A popular and helpful exercise used to practice mindfulness is called grounding, which is done by taking a few deep breaths (inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth) and identifying three things you can see, hear, smell and touch in your environment. Taking a moment to consciously identify these external things and be aware of our physical senses can help bring us out of our heads and back into the present moment.

Of course, we can’t rewire our brains overnight; these techniques have to be practiced and repeated often before they can become a good habit that replaces the harmful habit of anxious thinking that we have developed.

Along with these mental exercises, physical exercise has also been shown to improve anxiety levels and help with stress management. Regular exercise’s benefits to the body are well-known, but it also benefits the brain by improving cognition, concentration, alertness and mood.

Vigorous exercise also improves our ability to sleep well, which is another very important part of anxiety management. Trouble falling asleep (and staying asleep) is one of the most common anxiety-related problems, yet not getting enough sleep actually makes anxiety worse, creating a vicious cycle.

Setting and sticking to a relaxing bedtime ritual can help with sleep consistency. Avoid watching TV (that includes Netflix!) half an hour before bedtime to give the brain sufficient time to wind down before sleep. Watching the news or violent programming too close to bedtime only worsens anxiety and makes it harder to slow down a racing mind.

As attached as we are to our smartphones, staring at our screens too close to bedtime can also cause sleeping problems. Smartphone screens emit bright blue light which can interfere with the brain’s ability to make melatonin, the important hormone that lets our bodies know when it’s time to sleep. iPhone users should take advantage of a new feature called Night Shift that when enabled, automatically shifts the screen’s color temperature to a yellowish hue, which is more soothing on the eyes and brain.

Get into the habit of asking yourself “what am I doing to take care of me?” Whatever the answer is, whether it’s taking the time to read, daily meditation or long walks, do more of it. Self-care is a critical step toward taking control of anxiety.

What if there is a bigger problem?

Although many people who suffer from mild to moderate anxiety are able to function in social and professional situations, those who find that their anxiety is preventing them from performing simple daily activities should seek professional treatment, which may include medication.

Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, and seeking help is key to taking charge of your mental health and moving forward with your life. It may seem scary or intimidating to seek help, especially if you’ve never had experience with any sort of therapy or counseling before. Doing some research about treatment methods and knowing what your options are may help you feel more empowered. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is a great online resource for learning about treatment options and even finding a therapist nearby.

None of the techniques mentioned in this article are 100% effective and they cannot replace professional treatment for those suffering from severe anxiety disorders. It is important to understand that everyone’s anxiety is different and not everyone responds to treatment in the same way or in the same amount of time.

Final thoughts:

Unlike illnesses such as the flu or pneumonia, anxiety can’t be completely eradicated. There is no true cure for anxiety, only methods designed to alleviate symptoms and techniques to keep it under control. Anxiety is very manageable, but because of the way the human brain is designed, it can never completely go away.

Simply being able to identify what triggers your anxiety and being aware of what physical symptoms you may experience before an anxiety attack can go a long way in preventing anxious thoughts from escalating into full-fledged panic attacks. The sooner you can recognize that an attack is coming, the sooner you can take measures to prevent it.

Stress is a part of life, and some anxiety is inevitable, but knowing how to manage those feelings and keep them from becoming a habit of thinking will help you stay in control of your thoughts and handle whatever life throws at you in the future. Remember that you have the power to take control of your anxiety and that you aren’t alone in your fight for peace of mind.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Relationships & The Task of Looking Within



“I see when men love  women. They give them but a little of their lives. But women when they love give everything. “  ~Oscar Wilde


“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  ~ Albert Camus

"We are never so vulnerable as when we love." ~ Sigmund Freud


Being in a private practice under the direction of a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I am referred my fair share of couples to work with. I have to admit, I have disliked couple’s counseling right from the start. Initially doing couples counseling begged the question "How in the world am I going to be a helpful and effective counselor to struggling couples, when I myself have a poor track record and don't even have a decent relationship of my own?" As a therapist, who encourages my clients toward growth, I had to take my own medicine and ask myself this question,“ Why do I dislike this so much? What is my aversion trying to tell me about myself? How can I grow from this?”

As part of my own questions about couple’s counseling, and relative lack of experience in doing it, I began to seek out resources to help me do it better and with a little more confidence.  Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships by Dr. Sue Johnson is a book focusing on how attachment theory plays into our romantic relationships. I am intensely interested in attachment, and found this a great place to start. Dr. Johnson is also the originator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, an attachment based relationship therapy.  The next book I read focused on a more Jungian approach, The Art of Love the Craft of Relationship by Dr. Bud Harris. In this book, Dr. Harris and his wife Massimilla weave in the myth of Eros and Psyche, with the stories of 4 couples, while blending in the Myers Briggs personality typology.  I have read other books focused on maintaining healthy relationships and healing those that are falling apart, but so far I found these 2 books to be the most helpful for me, and more in line with my style of counseling.  With time I am becoming better at couple’s counseling, and at the same time, I am becoming better at understanding a more well-rounded view of what makes a healthy relationship. Yet, I still find myself dreading the sessions on some level, to the point that I sometimes feel a little anxious about them. I have to wonder why. I think it goes back to my own sense of failure in relationships and that was a tough one to admit. I have lately spent some time thinking and writing about my experience in relationship and have slightly withdrawn into my head a little more than usual in order to wrestle with this. An event about a year ago which popped back up about 3 months ago also triggered something within me I hadn't known was there, and had me thinking about this as well. As a therapist, I have to constantly work on myself in order to be better at what I do, the same is true in long term romantic partnerships.


I want to try to keep my self disclosure relevant, so I will try to keep it short. Counseling anyone can bring up any issues that aren't worked through for a Counselor. Even when an issue is worked through, what our clients bring to us can sometimes be difficult to hear. I often draw not only on my training and education, but also on my own  and others' experiences when doing my work...as well as my self care and getting my own counseling. Through my struggle to feel like I am effectively providing something that looks like "good" couples counseling, I realized through my own self-reflection a few things. First of all, my divorce was a huge blow to my self-esteem and self-worth, and it took me some years to recover from it. Although I won't go so far as calling it re-traumatization, when presented with a relationship of my own or helping someone else work through theirs, I sometimes wonder if I am recovered.  Second,  I am not currently in a relationship, and my last 3 have ended for a variety of reasons, while my ex-husband seems to have found someone with whom he can be in a seemingly solid healthy relationship. I know intellectually that “comparison is the thief of joy”, but it still eats at me every now and then. I never wanted to be single again and I still don't. Perhaps it’s poor timing, maybe it's me choosing the wrong person to be in relationship with, maybe I haven't found the right person yet...or perhaps not...maybe it's just ME. One of my last relationships after my divorce lasted the longest which was off and on and lasted for about 3 and a half years, but it was going no where, not very healthy, and ended in a way that had me not only questioning him and his fitness to be in relationship with anyone, but my own as well for staying so long, and that leaves me feeling not only anxious, but deflated.  It’s normal for anyone to feel a sense of a loss of self-esteem when a relationship ends and I know this, so keeping it in mind has been very important, but difficult for me. I have to keep reminding myself to learn from this and not let it define me, but at the same time, being vulnerable enough to love fully again is scary.  Based on attachment research we seek out a partner for a variety of reasons, but one of those most important reasons is that deep need we all have for attachment to a safe and secure base. Although I am doing “alone” OK for the moment,  at the same time, not having that right now gives me a sense of floundering to some degree because having a healthy long term romantic relationship is something I want for myself. Knowing that I will be a full on empty nester in 2-3 short years highlights that even further.  I have felt that secure attachment to another as an adult early in my marriage, so I know exactly what it looks and feels like, but the end of that relationship (the last 5 years at least), were years of anxiety and trauma, and thus an anxious attachment style on my part developed toward my then partner. How it ended only adds to that.  I think I have carried that into other relationships since, and for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here. The third thing that came up for me is this gnawing feeling that I am somehow not worthy of, or perhaps even afraid of forming a deep bond with someone again. Maybe there is something wrong with me? Maybe it's that I fear failure or hurt which in turn is only going to hold me back. Going back to a previous post on fatherlessness, I can see how some of that would play into these thoughts. Although there has been a significant time lapse since then, the trauma of how my marriage ended comes into play on some level as well I think. I am afraid to invest so much after the way my situation ended. Yet at the same time, I have this thought at the back of my mind that I don't want to end up alone due to barriers and fears I can overcome. So when I counsel couples, most of the time, all of this comes up for me at one time or another, and I have to sort through that as I am working and set it aside. Sometimes I can get right to the heart of the matter with a couple and do good work and other times, I leave the session feeling drained...and that is when I question what this couple is bringing to me that dredges up my own issues and junk, and I have to sit with it and do some sifting. I like to think that in the end this is making me a better and more whole person.



 Understanding my needs, wants and expectations in a relationship is the key to building a solid relationship, not only with someone else but with myself.   This is something I often tell my couples clients and I routinely have them write those down and exchange them to foster conversation. The homework sounds easy enough, but try doing it yourself, it’s quite challenging.  Understanding who I am in this stage of my life has also been exceptionally helpful for me in doing my work but also in understanding what I want, need and expect. In addition, it has also brought me to the attention of the fact that I am not willing to settle, as I often see people do after a divorce (especially in middle age) just so they aren’t “forever alone”.  Many of the couples I see come to see me at a point in their marriage when one partner has “checked out”. Some even go so far as to romanticize divorce and being on their own and/or dating again (it is difficult, I admit, to stay neutral when that comes up). When I assign them the task of writing down their wants, needs and expectations of their relationship, more often than not I wind up seeing that "deer in headlights" look from at least one of them. The reason? Most people do not take the time to think about that. It seems to be a given that our partner will fulfill all of that without having to ask for any of it, much less recognizing it for themselves.  I often see it as challenging enough to help these clients understand the dynamics of their relationship, what went wrong (whether it’s shutting down, feeling criticized, losing sight of the relationship in preference to the children and/or career, substance abuse or addiction, mental illness, attachment, trauma, infidelity, etc.), finding ways to reconnect, how to repair it, helping them determine if it is salvageable and in helping each partner in understanding themselves, but when one or both do not even have the basics thought out, it's even more of a challenge.  I often have the couple each see their own counselor, if they are not already. It is my belief that each half of a partnership must be a whole person to begin with, or the unit/relationship will not work in healthy ways. In turn, 2 whole people forming a solid healthy relationship will then be better partners, parents, happier, stronger people, etc. I know that I am doing my best toward working to become a better, more solid person myself, but finding a partner who has in some way done the same has been a challenge.  Being a therapist leaves its mark, I admit, I can no longer see people or relationships  without that lens. I can tune it down, but I cannot turn it off. I am gradually getting better at couples counseling, and I like to think that in the process I am also becoming a better more whole person myself who is ready to move toward a healthy relationship of my own. The good news is, although I am not perfect at relationships or at life, like most healthy people, I have a lot of life experience, I learn from my mistakes, and I try to grow from each one, and this has proven to be invaluable to my work as well. It is also something I help my clients to do. As I continue to grow and work on my own issues, I hope that I can also become a better counselor to couples. As it stands now, I know I am improving, but I definitely do not have all of the answers.